Ayn Rand & the Spirit of Rebellion

June 19th, 2007

They sprawled in couches and chairs at the farthest corner of the Uptown coffee shop, their dyed black hair cut at odd angles or spiked with colored gel. Non-confomists, sharing the same style of clothes, chains, and tattoos. Smoking Camels or Camel Lights that they held between their middle knuckles rather than their fingertips.

I felt a connection with all of them, probably because the shadow of my own rebellion is never far behind me, but when I heard them arguing Objectivist philosophy versus human nature and social equality, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of affection.

Their conversation was heated and passionate. They may have shared youth and the style of discontent, but their philosophies were distinctly their own, and ran the gamut from revisionist socialism to ultra-virtuous capitalism.

I was there once. Young, and searching for the perfect world order. I read Atlas Shrugged when I was fifteen — a novel that played a significant political and social role in my generation — and remember being amused when Objectivist author Ayn Rand said that she couldn’t think of a more appropriate symbol for a thinker than the burning tip of a cigarette. Rand apparently did not know the smokers that I did. My mother and her husband, who smoked reflexively, the teenagers who made idiotic sport of blowing smoke rings and yes, myself, distracted, having to brush ashes off the page or keyboard.

I suppose it’s the nature of metaphors to be expedient. Rand didn’t carry her thought through to include yellowed filters, heaping ashtrays, toxins, and littered streets. She gave all that unpleasantness up in favor of the burning tip. When I read that line, nearer the end of the book, it made me wonder about all the other things Rand might have given up to tell her story.

A Russian emigrant, Rand’s disgust and disdain for communism led to her becoming a wide-eyed and awed disciple of industry, with a particularly slavish devotion to the titans of American enterprise. Rand’s ideals were simplistic and austere, and her canvas reflected her values. The metal of industry, the green of money, the white marble of pedestals, the gray of smokestacks, the translucence of sweat, the bruise of passion, the black and white distance between the haves and the have-nots and the pure and the corrupt.

In Rand’s idealized world, “bad” would not be rewarded because the “good,” even if in the minority, would overcome and overpower all. True titans, given full control and value, would never be corrupt because (with the nature Rand imposes on them) they are so immaculate that purely dark motives never fuel their desires. Even when they are being punitive, these men are beacons of enlightenment.

Rand envisioned a safe and wholly rational world under the rule of such men, who would never purposely manipulate the economy to oppress a populace, or use their power to enslave a culture, or trade corrupt political favors for their own social gain. These men would not build slave ships, rape women, or lynch those in search of freedom. These titans would not bring children into the factories to work for a pittance: Being men of reason, they would not operate tyrannical or brutal sweat factories. They would not manufacture shoddy devices, rig elections, or advance prejudice through discriminatory hiring practices.

No, in Rand’s America, devoid of historical truths and lessons, true titans would disempower the “bad.” Corrupt enterprises, if they were built, would quickly go out of business for lack of interest or value. All the geniuses and their prodigies, and those who worshipped and faithfully served them, would rise to their rightful and sanctified places. No one else really need exist. If they did, they could only be ever-grateful and tireless laborers, street bums, or other lost souls.

I found it interesting that midway through her epic novel, Rand sends her handful of genius-heroes into sanctuary to “stop the engine of the world” after they have been treated poorly and victimized by a corrupt and irrational society. Atlas, representing the titans, was shrugging the weight of the world from his shoulders. And of course, the world suffers greatly when its strongest members disappear. The sanctuary though, a large valley in Colorado, becomes an industrialized and mutually worshipping paradise.

Two things about Rand’s sanctuary are particularly telling. First, the clear streams, tall pines, and majestic mountains of Colorado move Rand not at all - she writes excitedly about the environment only when nature is conquered by industrialization. Second, it seems Rand could not envision her heroes successfully reordering the chaos of a corrupt society while in the midst of it - she had to send them away.

Rand ends her novel with a plane ride - the heroes returning home - but never realizes the redemption or reclaiming of the world as a more rational place. There’s only a promise of society’s brighter and more rational future, which readers are supposed to trust because Rand has consistently clarified the brilliance of her heroes and showed us how, with logic, effort and desire, a trail could be blazed. Rand’s fictional sanctuary was a massive expanse of privately owned land, and the blazed trail was far removed from the chaos and constrictions of public domain. This detail seemed not to effect Rand’s vision of the larger, more encompassing future.

At fifteen, I was drawn to Rand’s ideals, but also skeptical. I was looking for answers, in search of mentors and guidance, and seeking pathways to adult success. The stark simplicity of Atlas Shrugged appealed to the part of me that craves logic and order. The penniless orphan that became hero John Galt catered to my hopefulness. Rand herself - an immigrant, a laborer, an avid learner, and then a successful writer - was an inspiration. I might not have read anything except one line of Rand’s work - when one of her characters states that he is never lonely when he is alone (from an early draft of The Fountainhead) - and felt an affinity for her thoughts.

I was relieved when Ms. Rand ushered a couple of artists and underlings into the Atlas world. Of course, they were incredible beings - titans of their craft or prodigal sons - but prior to their introduction, Rand left me wondering if such people would have any place in her industrial world.

Rand was a charismatic and inflexible promoter of capitalistic extremes. She chose her scenes carefully and seemed to have an answer, even if brusquely economical, for the most common questions. She hinted at the rough-edged and well-considered beneficence of her rulers, but didn’t elaborate how this would effect the common person, the broken person, or the larger social order. By focusing on the bright light of industrial genius and repelling mediocrity as its opposite, Rand evaded much that was human, elemental, and inevitable.

Still, at fifteen, excited and anxious to enter the adult world and make my own living, I was drawn to Rand’s heroes. I did not have the genius of a John Galt or Dagney Taggart, but I thought I might be a Jonathon - Dagney’s trusted assistant - or even a part of John Galt’s loyal crew. I rewired my solitary energy and went in search of connections - and heroes. Thirty years later, I know why Atlas Shrugged was so compelling, and also why Rand needed fiction to sustain her philosophical ideals.

Rand was a genius at complicating the simple credo of the American dream – which is the basis for her Objectivist philosophy – but she needed a simplicity that could only be offered by fiction in order to make any of it sound believable or possible. She had to push aside all of the political, social and human realities that defied her hardline approach, in order to create a black and white world where the virtuous and the villainous were clearly separate, and where virtue ultimately held all the power.

The bright young rebels at the coffee house will likely attempt conformity somewhere down the line. Their hair may go back to its genetic roots, their piercings and tattoos may be hidden, but each of them, I know, will carry the ideals of their favorite philosophies in their pockets. Each will approach adult life believing there is a safe harbor somewhere in their future, where abundant opportunities will exist for bright and eager people like them, who are differently minded, passionate, and idealistic.

I couldn’t imagine telling them otherwise, and I didn’t. Instead, I listened and found myself smiling on the inside. My generation is not theirs. Mine kept few promises and failed to live up to many ideals, but its days are now numbered. The world will belong to a new generation, hopefully one that’s full of youthful energy and new ideas, and one that won’t rely on fiction, no matter how compelling, when it’s their turn to build a better world.  


8 Responses to “Ayn Rand & the Spirit of Rebellion”

  • The Fountainhead made a profound impact on me when I was 18 because after 14 years of Catholic schools, Rand’s message was that it was okay to be selfish.

    My roommates in college and I had a few long night discussions about Rand’s ideas and had her on a pedestal. Looking back, I can’t believe how enamored I was with her –such an anti-environmentalist and expounding a narcissistic view of the world. Still, she has the best opening line of almost any book I know.

    He stood naked at the edge of a cliff….

    Still remember it after all these years.
    Nice essay, Jane.

  • Dear Jane,
    Loved your article and I’ll come back and read it again.
    When I was 15, I read “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler.
    I wanted to be prepared…but I’m not, LOL!!!
    I’m going on vacation be back in a week or so, but if I have access to get online, I’ll be checking in.

    Love Always,

    P.S.: I’m still worried about Deb A…I sure hope she is taking care of herself!

  • Ayn Rand was a complicated woman to say the least. Because she often thought outside of the box there seemed to be something that everyone could identify with. I think this is why she appealed to the minds of most college students. At a time when we are standing on the ever so intense, precipice of life, and longing to find ourselves, and what we believe in, we search out those who will help us make a stand. Ayn Rand did this. She made me dig deep when it came to such things as gender roles, sexuality, racism, politics and philosophy. She was as much a part of my education as my classes were.

  • p.s. Jane excellent essay

  • i read atlas shrugged, also many years ago, and i can still remember thinking of what was to come. when the trains quit running from the east to the west coast and so on. when the farms were taken over by ATLAS, and the mom and pop gas stations, had to close. for bigger and better. they could not afford to pay for the testing of their gas tanks, and could not stand up to all the new rules. every time i see these things happen it leads me right back to her book. i guess i will read it again. did i miss the point. was i way off on my thinking?

  • also ,the fountainhead. that was a movie also, i can’t rember who played in that, it was gary cooper ,but i don’t rember seeing him standing naked, maybe they cut that part out. but here was a man who i thought dared to be different, he wanted his buildings to be different, and he did fight for his right to be different. guess i’ll read that again too. jane you are just a wonderful human being. tell qv hi for me

  • Dear Jane,
    I’ll need to visit my local library very soon.
    I remember thinking I needed to read
    “Atlas Shrugged” long ago…
    My research on the web, just now, has
    lead me back to a time, I cannot remember
    actually when, or who once inspired me to
    read this, but, anyway I never did, I probably
    got sidetracked or had too, little time.
    God knows I need to read more, than write.
    Love Always,

  • By the way, I had an awful Wednesday evening.
    A man came by offering to clean my gutters, and sweep my roof. He had a nice business card, that said he was fully licensed and insured. Well, I turned him away and said, “Maybe I’ll call you next week.”
    Then I thought, I might as well get the work done, while he was in the neighborhood and it would save him some gas.
    So, I called him to do the work, that he so reasonably estimated.
    His business card said, “Warren Gilliam Window Cleaning,” so I asked him how much…
    “Five dollars a window was his reply.”
    “Hey, what a deal,” I thought to myself. So, I asked him if he had the time.
    All the windows in my old house, are French, so each window conists of 12 panes of glass, plus storm windows…and he cleaned each window inside and out, by-hand, having to dismantle the exterior frames for the storm windows, then reinstall them.

    He under estimated himself….that’s the clincher!!!

    I wrote him a check, and when he had left I noticed my jewelry box was no longer ajar with all the ‘junk’ and mostly costume bangles from years past.
    Anyway, I called the bank and paid the $30 bucks to Stop Payment for that check.
    Then, I called him and told him, about the nice policeman/detective that lives down the street and warned him not to cash that check.
    The bank told me it would take up to 24 hours to activate the ‘Hold,’ so my intention was not soooooo, pure!!!
    He called me at least six times on Thursday, and called me a crazy lady. He said, “How do you know I took your jewelry, are my fingerprints on that box?” He also said, in one of his calls, “I’m at the police station and they told me to cash that check.”
    I hung up and did not continue to answer his calls.
    For two nights, I’ve been unable to sleep, worried he might come back and damage my home or my car.
    He did get my wedding ring, because it was too, small (since I’ve gained weight from that size 5), and he got a heart pendant with a picture of my husband, me and my baby inside. Other than that, and $30 bucks…that was his pay for 434 surfaces and 217 panes!!!

    He under estimated himself….that’s the clincher!!!

    I even told him if he returned my jewelry, I’d write him another check, and told him God Bless.

    I’m such an idiot!!!

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